Karolyi: a slick example of sports propaganda whitewash

Jack Felling “Karolyi” (NBC Sports, 2016)

Here is a very slickly produced documentary made for the NBC television network as part of a series of sports documentaries made before the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The documentary breathlessly follows the careers and lives of Romanian women’s gymnastics coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi from the time they met in Romania at sports college in the early 1960s, marrying in 1963. The Karolyis started a national gymnastics school and one of their early students was Nadia Comaneci. The Karolyis trained Comaneci to the level where she and other of their students were named to represent Romania at the 1975 European Championships and the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. The success of the Romanian team and Comaneci in particular at these Olympics catapulted the Karolyis and Comaneci to international fame – but it also led to conflict developing between Bela Karolyi and the Romanian Communist government, with Comaneci becoming an unfortunate victim. After the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, the disagreement between the Karolyis and Bucharest deepened and the Karolyis defected to the United States in 1981. After their defection, the Karolyis had to struggle to re-establish their coaching careers in the US and for a time Bela himself had to work as a manual labourer on a ship dock. They were able to establish a gymnastics school in Texas and took on an eager student called Mary Lou Retton. Retton’s success at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles laid the foundation for the Karolyis’ rise to becoming the national coaches for the United States women’s gymnastics teams from the late 1980s onwards to 2016. During this period, the Karolyis (with the help of a US senator) were able to get their daughter Andrea out of Romania in the early 1980s and built their gymnastics training camp and ranch in a rural area north of Houston.

The fawning documentary depicts the Karolyis as being rugged and persistent Ayn-Rand individualists achieving incredible fame and success as sports coaches almost on their own. Bela Karolyi apparently built his training camp and ranch himself. Nothing is said of the help the US gymnastics community gave to the Karolyis to help them set up their gymnastics school in Texas. The Karolyis’ most famous students (Comaneci, Retton and US 1992 and 1996 Olympian Kerri Strug) are interviewed along with the Karolyis themselves, and what the young women say tends to be positive towards the Karolyis. There is none of the criticism that has dogged the Karolyis over the decades with respect to their training methods and psychological manipulation of young gymnasts in Romania and the US, the cult-like atmosphere fostered by the physical isolation of their training camp and ranch, and how the context of this isolated training camp combined with their treatment of the girls and their families set the stage for sports doctor Larry Nassar to be able to sexually abuse hundreds of young gymnasts.

In the wake of the US gymnastics sexual abuse scandal that erupted in September 2016, this documentary now looks quite creepy especially in the scenes depicting the training camp and its isolated surrounds. It still has some value though as an example of propaganda that whitewashes its subjects in a very favourable light (of a softly golden glowing kind) and would be suitable for propaganda studies looking at how sports celebrities are created and moulded to push particular ideologies that celebrate rugged individualism and heroism.

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